The loose ties that bind

Google’s Matt Cutts gives his company and his CEO hearty pats on the back for working to ensure that customers can gain access to the information they feed into Google’s databases. With Google, he claims, you don’t feel “trapped.” You can always pull your information out of the comapny’s systems and cart if off to another vendor. He lists the various Google applications that let you – if you’re fairly computer-savvy, that is – export your data: Gmail, Search, Docs, Spreadsheet, Calendar, Talk, Reader, Blogger, AdWords, Groups, Analytics.

The back pats are in general well deserved. Google has a strong record of supporting open formats and data portability.

But reading Cutts’s laundry list of applications into which customers funnel ever more of their data should also give us pause. As we consolidate more of our personal data into a single company’s databases – whether it’s Google or another firm – how “easy” is it, really, to withdraw our information? The answer is: It’s not easy at all. In a comment on Cutts’s post, Philipp Lenssen gets at this issue:

I agree that Google is rather open in these regards and allows you to export a lot. One thing to remember though is that as soon as Google products cross-integrate — e.g. a link from Gmail to add an event to Google Calendar — the costs for users of switching away are increased for any single product. As a practical example, let’s say I love Gmail and I hate Google Calendar, so I want to move to competitor Acme Calendar. Great, you guys offer exporting functionality for my events, so I’ll quickly move them from Acme. But you guys don’t allow me to set my preferred Gmail calendar integration software… so now I end up with a somewhat broken Gmail feature. This is not at all alarming on this scale, but it can be a problem for users down the road when Google heavily increases cross-integration (Google Checkout is being pushed in search result today, for example, cross-integrating another two theoretically “loosely coupled” services).

As Lenssen emphasizes in his comment, Google has, as a profit-making company, the right and the incentive to raise its customers’ switching costs. It’s a smart strategy. But it makes the self-satisifed claims of simple data portability sound at least a little disingenuous. Lenssen points out that “in the end, any company won’t ‘trap data’ for the sheer fun of it, but because they want to create a lock-in situation for their users to increase the costs of switching to competing products. So we need to look at the end result of whether or not the costs of switching are really ‘one click.'”

Google said last year that one of its core objectives going forward is “Store 100% of user data.” By 100%, it means 100%. The company wrote:

With infinite storage, we can house all user files, including: emails, web history, pictures, bookmarks, etc and make it accessible from anywhere (any device, any platform, etc) … As we move toward the “Store 100%” reality, the online copy of your data will become your Golden Copy and your local-machine copy serves more like a cache. An important implication … is that storing 100% of a user’s data makes each piece of data more valuable because it can be access[ed] across applications. For example: a user’s Orkut profile has more value when it’s accessible from Gmail (as addressbook), Lighthouse (as access list), etc.

There’s the Faustian rub. Keeping all your data in Google’s database will make the sharing of that data among different applications much easier and will allow you to do things you couldn’t do if the data was spread across many companies. At the same time, it raises the cost of extracting any chunk of the data and moving it elsewhere sky high. In a “Store 100%” world, the doors may be unlocked, but you ain’t going nowhere.

4 thoughts on “The loose ties that bind

  1. Bertil

    The common opinion in economics is that Google has this incentive—however, I am drafting a model that isolates situations where the incentive is actually to facilitate user’s departure. Namely, by removing the risk to adopt the wrong technology, the service encourages adoption. I’d love to share it around, but I doubt that you enjoy formal microeconomics (a discipline further from reality then quantum physics) and the understandable version still needs some work.

  2. Mike Whatley

    Guilty as charged Nick. And I’ve stopped worrying about it. First it was an innocent Gmail account, and then over time, the full Google Suite (with the exception of Jot Spot) has become the central axis and repository of my online activity.

    Yes, I have some lingering angst over such a surrender. But the ease of use and single point of contact is just too convenient. Thus I will remain a docile dependent of the “Store 100%” model. For better or worse.

  3. bya

    Nick, have a listen to Alan Kay speak about his project some time.

    Croquet: A Collaboration Architecture

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